Enhance Your Beer Smarts
The rigorous training of a beer judge
by Jim Roberts

Aug. 28-Sept. 3, 1997 / Vol. 6, Ed. 34

Ask any of the brewers in our local breweries or brewpubs; most, if not all of them, have their roots in homebrewing.

I’m assuming that most of you read this column because you have a heightened interest in beer and drink enough of the stuff to appreciate the subtle differences between the many styles, brands and products available for your discerning consumption. My hopes are that this column helps you gain increased understanding, knowledge and appreciation of the beverage. I’ll be the first to concede, however, that this weekly dose of opinion, intuition, information and witticism is hardly sufficient to push you down the road toward Beer Guru or even Connoisseur status. There are other opportunities to learn more about beer however, and the fact that you don’t have to depend solely on me certainly takes the pressure off.

The homebrewing community here in Anchorage (specifically, the Great Northern Brewers Homebrew Club) not only manages virtually all of the beer judging events in Anchorage and the surrounding communities but also provides an excellent source of beer education in the form of a Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP). Participating in this program and the judging process provides you with opportunities to hone both your palate and your beer brain.

The BJCP is actually a facet of the American Homebrewer’s Association, which is aligned with the American Association of Brewers. Lose the idea right away that such a program will teach you only how to judge bathtub, basement and garage swill: homebrew can be brewed at levels of quality that easily equal or exceed commercial beer. Ask any of the brewers in our local breweries or brewpubs; most, if not all of them, have their roots in homebrewing. The BJCP is a systematic, academic and hands-on (or is it mouths-on?) study program designed to teach aspiring beer enthusiasts about the essence of any kind of beer: ingredients and styles, brewing practices, beer history, and, most importantly, beer style flavors, judging techniques and beer judge scoring. Also of significant importance: participants learn how to detect and identify defects in beers — there are often as many of these in commercial beers as there are in home-brewed beers.

The program involves both “lecture” and “lab” instruction, delivered in an informal, relaxed atmosphere, where all aspects of the brewer’s art are explored. Plenty of sampling takes place to educate the palates of the students. Students share the responsibility of learning and teaching; the instruction is never really formal. Instruction is provided by BJCP judges who have been through the wringer and have considerable experience in the field of beer and brewing. The program culminates with a comprehensive written examination and a graded sensory evaluation of a beer. (A drinking test? Where the hell was this curriculum when I was in school?)

After the American Homebrew Association grades the exams and passes those “few good men” (actually, 12 of the 16 course attendees passed last year), card-carrying beer judges maintain their proficiency by judging at American Homebrew Association-sanctioned events, organizing beer competitions and generally, evaluating a lot of beer. Locally, such events abound, and noteworthy examples include the annual Fur Rondy Homebrew Competition, State Fair Homebrew Competition and the various brewery and brewpub-sponsored competitions.

There are ample opportunities for new judges to earn the points required to stay certified and progress through the ranks of Novice, Recognized, Certified, National, Master, Grand Master and Honorary Master judges, depending upon which rank they entered at, based on test scores and previous experience points. The local beer events need lots of judges because of the recent, upward spiral in the number of homebrew entries.

The beauty of all of this is that you don’t have to be a certified beer judge to start the process of enhancing your knowledge and palate. “We encourage novices to start in and learn beer and gain an understanding of the diversity and complexity of beer through the judging program. The only training even the certified judges get is the hands-on experience of sitting down with more experienced judges and judging the beers in actual competitions and events,” says Larry Williamson, certified judge and an assistant in the administration of the BJCP for the Great Northern Brewers Homebrew Club.

If you end up on Larry’s list of prospective judges and are either inexperienced or not certified, you’ll be paired up with two experienced judges who’ll guide you through the process of judging beer while you actually take part in the event. Certification can come later. Whipping out your American Homebrewer’s Association BJCP certification card at your favorite swillery may not get you free beer, but it’s bound to impress your friends and the other beer snobs sitting around contemplating their brews.

The next local BJCP classes are slated to start sometime later this fall. You must be a member of Great Northern Brewers to participate ($20 annual membership fee). While the course is free, the examination fee (imposed by the American Homebrewer’s Association) at the end of the class will cost you $50. Contact Shane Docherty of The Great Northern Brewers Club, 3705 Arctic Blvd., #1204, Anchorage, Alaska 99503 if you’re interested in this program.

I’ve been a homebrewer for seven years and have been judging in the various local events on and off for most of this time, but have yet to certify. Hey, practice is fun, and I can think of worse ways to spend an afternoon than drinking beer and talking about it! The previous two authors of this column somehow managed to get certified during their tenure with the Press, so I guess I’ll eventually follow suit.

Copyright 1998 Anchorage Press